For the record, with video of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s signing ceremony, the special legislative session for an emergency budget measure ended shortly before 1 a.m this morning. This was barely 36 hours after it began Thursday, but covered the legally required three calendar days.
The legislation, approved unanimously and quickly in House and Senate, puts $173 million into a reserve fund that the governor and three members of each House can approve disbursing to shore up state agencies that will endure a $353 million (about 4 percent cut) in this year’s appropriations in the last three months of the fiscal year. The cut is caused by the coronavirus-caused economic collapse and delay in filing state income tax returns,.
The legislative budget session, normally a 30-day affair limited to agency budgets, is still set to begin April 8. The chances of a return to normalcy by then seem slight. So the future might include a continuation of House sessions at the Jack Stephens Center at UA Little Rock (or another large hall) and the Senate spread between floor and galleries, with little or no access for the public except by video.
A legislative session without lobbyists lurking in the hallways? Without cooked-up “group” dinners at which stiff drinks and thick steaks are provided by corporate hosts? There’s light in the darkness for you.
A legislative session that quickly and efficiently dispenses with budgets (the fiscal session was an unnecessary idea adopted a few years ago in the first place)? Another welcome thought.
A cease-fire on legislative trickery and personal agendas in a time of emergency? Another bit of wishful thinking.
Even this week’s hurry-up legislative session wasn’t devoid of personal interest politics. The Senate confirmed a round of routine gubernatorial appointments, but not until after Sen. Mark Johnson, the Republican from rural Pulaski County, worked out some unspecified objection to the governor’s reappointment of Dr. Vickie Magie, a Plumerville optician, to a position on the state Board of Dispensing Opticians. It was approved early this morning after a delay Friday afternoon.
Potentially related background: She’s the sister of Democratic state Rep. Stephen Magie, a Conway ophthalmologist. One of the most contentious issues in recent years was the 2019 fight over expanding surgery procedures for optometrists, a bill opposed by ophthalmologists and now the subject of a repeal campaign. Johnson supported the legislation.
Hutchinson announced the appointment months ago, but the legislature must be in session for appointments to be confirmed. A senator for a district in which appointee lives can block confirmation.